I return to the subject of freedom of information this week, having been a guest at the Parliament last night at a reception to mark five years of FoI coming into force in Scotland.
There was quite a crowd there, from public bodies and campaign groups, and politicians past and present who had been associated with FoI, among others. Hosted by SNP member Michael Matheson, we heard also from Bruce Crawford, Minister for Parliamentary Business (like Matheson, an opposition member when the Act was before the Parliament), the Parliament's own officer in charge of FoI, someone from a disability support group who told us how her group had benefited from being able to access information (and of the help available from the Scottish Information Commissioner's office), and the Commissioner himself, Kevin Dunion.
The flavour of the evening was along the lines "we hope we're not boasting but we do think Scotland has one of the better/more effective FoI regimes, even looking globally". Apparently the Commissioner's office has been the subject of study by the World Bank (if I recall correctly) as to how to run an effective regime. Partly a question of resources, of course, and the office has not been financially hamstrung like some others, but a tribute all the same.
Someone did tell me of a six figure sum it was costing their organisation each year to deal with FoI requests, mostly by a hard core of activists, or people with an axe to grind depending on your point of view. It's difficult to see, however, how you might legislatively curtail such consequences without restricting the very freedoms the Act enshrines, which I have not heard questioned and which almost certainly lead to better government (though as was said at the round table discussion I also attended recently, proper research on this point is regrettably lacking).
Unless there is some way of attaching the equivalent of vexatious litigant status to persistent enquirers – difficult, I would have thought, since the value of information to an individual is subjective – perhaps public bodies should adopt wherever possible a publication culture: just post minutes and the like online as a matter of course unless it would disclose personal data or other information clearly within one of the protected categories.
At the least it must be an argument in favour of digital files for greater ease of data retrieval. There must be money to be saved somewhere.
Oh, and the round table report will be in February's Journal – online from Monday 15th.